Fool's Assassin / Page 229

Page 229


“What is he doing, Papa?” I demanded, and my father and Riddle both stopped and turned to watch.

“These pups,” the man shouted as he caught the descending end of the rope, “are the best bulldogs a man could own. All know a pup gets its heart from its mother, and this old bitch of mine is the doughtiest bitch a man ever owned. She’s old now, and not much to look at, but she’s got heart. I reckon this is the last litter she’ll ever whelp for me! So if you want a dog that will face down a bull, a dog that will set its teeth in a thief’s leg or a bull’s nose and never let go till you say so, now is the time to get one of these pups!”

I stared at the brown-and-white puppies in the cart. Their ears were edged with red. Chopped off, I realized. Someone had cut their ears off short. One of the puppies turned suddenly as if bitten by a flea, but I knew what he was doing. Licking the shorn stump that had once been a tail. The old dog had only ragged stubs of ears and a nub of a tail. The man hauled on the rope as he spoke, and to my shock a blanket in the cart shuddered and then out from under it came a bloody bull’s head. The man had tied the rope round the bull’s horns, and it hung, nose-down, severed neck trailing the pale tubes of its throat. He hoisted it up until the bull’s head hung as high as the man was tall. Then he tied off the rope and gave the head a push to set it swinging. It must have been something he had done before, for the old bitch fixed her eyes on it.

She was a battered old thing, with white around her muzzle and hanging dugs and torn ears. She fixed her red-rimmed eyes on the swinging bull’s head and a quiver ran over her. All around the square, people were drawing nearer. Someone shouted something by the door to the tavern, and a moment later a full score of men poured out. “Set, bitch!” the man shouted, and the old dog surged forward. With a tremendous leap, she seized the bull’s nose in her teeth and hung there, suspended by her grip. The men closest to the cart roared their approval. Someone ran forward and gave the dangling head a strong push. Severed head and dog swung together. The man in the cart shouted, “Nothing will break her grip! She’s been gored and trampled and never let go! Get a pup from her last litter now!” The crowd about the cart was growing, to my great annoyance. “I can’t see,” I complained to my father. “Can we go closer?”

“No,” Riddle said shortly. I looked up to see his face dark with anger. I glanced at my father, and suddenly it was Wolf-Father who stood beside me. I do not mean that he had a muzzle and hair upon his face, but that his eyes were wild with ferocity. Riddle picked me up, to carry me away, but instead it gave me a view. The cart man had pulled a great knife from under his coat. He stepped forward, seized his old dog by her scruff. She growled loudly but kept her grip. He grinned round at the crowd, and then, with a sudden swipe, he sliced one of her ears off. Her snarling took on a frenzied note, but she did not break her hold. The blood ran scarlet down her sides and melted the snow in a rain of red drops.

Then Riddle was turning and taking long strides away. “Come away, Fitz!” he called in a low rough voice, as firmly as if he ordered a dog. But no command could control Wolf-Father. A moment longer he stood still and I saw his shoulders bunch under his winter cloak as the man’s knife rose, fell and rose bloodied again. No more than that could I see, but the crowd of onlookers roared and screamed and so I knew that still the bitch gripped the bull’s nose in her teeth. “Only the three pups for sale!” the man shouted. “Only the three, whelps of a bitch who will let me gut her and die hanging from her teeth! Last chance to bid on these pups!”

But he was not waiting for anyone to offer money. He knew he would have his pick of the offers once he had delivered the bloodbath they craved. Riddle held me, and I knew he longed to carry me far away and feared to leave my father alone. “Damn, where is Shun or FitzVigilant when they might be more useful than annoying!” he demanded of no one. He looked at me, his dark eyes wild. “If I set you down, Bee, will you stay … no. A fair chance you’d be trampled. Oh, child, what will your sister say to me?” And then my father suddenly lunged forward, as if a chain that had held him back had snapped, and Riddle surged after him trying to catch hold of his cloak. The man’s bloodied knife rose; I saw it over the heads of the onlookers as Riddle pushed and cursed his way through the crowd that had gathered to watch the dog’s end.

Ahead of us, someone shouted angrily as my father bowled him over to get past. The man’s knife fell and the crowd chorused a deep-throated shout. “Is this the blood I dreamed?” I asked Riddle, but he did not hear me. Something swirled wild around me. The feeling of the blood-mad crowd was like a smell I could not clear from my nostrils. I felt it would tear me loose from my body. Riddle held me to his left shoulder and with his right hand set hard he forced his way in my father’s wake.

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